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353

Jimena Canales, A Tenth of a Second: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 288 pp.

This scintillating book recounts a nearly century-long obsession with the ‘sacred 0.1 seconds’, from around 1850 to the eve of the Second World War. The problem had its deep origins in Descartes’ assertion that reaction and stimulus occurred ‘at the same time’. But any ambition to challenge Cartesian mind-body dualisms at their interface in the nervous system remained feckless until the 1840s, when several different kinds of measuring devices galvanometers and graphical recording instruments - made it possible to demonstrate a lag time between stimulus and response. A scientific consensus formed around the time required by an intelligent person to perceive and to will: about one tenth of a second. From about 1850 the measurement of the tenth of a second became a key dimension of scientific problems across the disciplines. Astronomical observations hinged critically on the reaction-times of observers, especially in the ‘eye and ear’ methods of determining time and longitude. After 1850, reaction times and personal equations became staples of any observational science that required physiological intermediaries. Experimental psychology made reaction-times the centerpiece of its disciplinary identity, with the experimental system of stimulus, a subject, and a recording device, and at least a tenth of a second elapsed between beginning and end of the operations. Canales goes well beyond these familiar stories, however, showing just how fundamental tenth of second measurement was for both practical metrological problems in physics and philosophical problems of many kinds. She shows, for example, how debates about the observational measurements of the transit of Venus across the sun in 1874 became embroiled in debates over chronophotography and the persistence of retinal impressions, which, as it happened, sustained a perception of movement when images appeared at intervals of about a
© 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S

354

Reviews

tenth of a second. Canales ties these debates to the technical development of cinematography, as well as to broad-gauge philosophical discussions about the perception of moving images. Still more remarkable were the effects of these debates on modern physics. Speed-oflight experiments in physics gained importance because of tenth-of-a-second errors in astronomy. A new definition of the meter (in terms of light waves) gained currency because of tenthof-a-second errors that haunted previous determinations of this standard. Interferometry, the pinnacle of precision science, was developed to overcome errors at this magnitude. It was, of course, Albert Michelson’s inferometric speed of light experiments that provided a critical touchstone for Einstein’s theory of relativity. Canales examines debates over relativity from the vantage point of this history, opening some remarkable new vistas on well-trodden historical terrain. To tell her history of brief time Canales has had to untangle some rather densely woven historiography that had long framed the history of reaction times and the personal equation. The ‘standard account’ emphasized the history of astronomy and experimental psychology, and more tendentiously, the movement of precision measurement from the physical sciences to the human sciences. Canales dispels this narrative by exploring a range of national and disciplinary sites where early reaction time research was pursued. Besides measurements of the speed of thought there were experiments on acoustics, optics, ballistics, astronomy, photometry and measurements of the speed of light that dealt with physiological intermediaries. Canales shows how the narrative of the ‘standard account’ was propagated by the French philosopher and psychologist Th´ odule Ribot as e a local polemic on behalf of burgeoning French experimental psychology. Ribot described a post-Kantian era invented in rival Germany, in which quantification was extended to include even the psyche, with personal equations revealing individual traits of personality, nervous constitution, health, education and intelligence.
© 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S

This narrative was repackaged for the history of science by the Harvard psychologist Edward G. Boring, who used it to illustrate the general march of scientific advance through quantification and measurement. Thomas Kuhn challenged Boring’s account, arguing that measurement was not progressive but relative to a theory-driven scientific paradigm. Simon Schaffer extended Kuhn’s critique of Boring into a social, cultural, and labor history of measurement, with the personal equation as a prime example. Measurement, Schaffer argued, should be the science historians’ method for unlocking the problem of modernity. Canales’ history of the tenth of a second makes a major contribution to this project. She shows how Baudelaire’s oft-cited notion of modernity - the ‘ephemeral, fleeting, the contingent’, which nevertheless recaptured ‘something eternal’- echoed the scientists’ quest to find a stable natural constant in a dynamic and evanescent world. Canales shows how literaryphilosophical formulation also expressed the central problem of integrating humans in science-based industrial and media systems (e.g. steam, rail, telegraphy, telephony) which required connections between material components and eyes, ears, hands and brains. ‘We all live on a tenth of a second world’, wrote an assistant to Thomas Edison in the 1920’s. Another key concern of the book is the range of new philosophies that emerged from the interfaces of the modernist hybrid systems. If you have ever fretted over why the canonical traditions of philosophy seem to disappear after 1850 this book may provide relief. Modern conceptions of the tenth of a second are central to the thought of Henri Bergson, William James, and others concerned with the boundaries of modern life between reality and illusion, action and passivity, psychology and physiology, human and non-human. An illuminating chapter considers public debates between Bergson and Einstein over the effects of relativity on time and simultaneity, a quarrel of philosophical and political consequence that hinged especially of the interpretation of reaction time experiments. More broadly, the widespread

Reviews

355

popular uses of the term ‘personal equation’, captured a new sense of personal identity in the technical and statistical matrix altogether different from older notions of ontological individuality. A range of similar philosophical discussions, mostly ignored today, arose that went beyond traditional categories of ‘man’, ‘thing’, ‘science’, ‘society’, and ‘politics’. Still, Canales probably falls a little short of her frequently stated aim to ‘search for alternatives’ to the modernity she has uncovered. One gets a fleeting impression that Canales has come to believe in the ontological existence of the tenth of second whose contingent history she has written. Like its subject, Canales’ book is relatively brief and, at times, fugitive. But it frames a vast sweep of modern history. It should - at least for a moment - set a new historiographic standard for many to follow. Robert Brain University of British Colombia, Vancoover

© 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S